Here is John the Baptiser still down by the Jordan. He is no longer attracting huge crowds; there are only two of his disciples with him. His hay day is over. He knows it, and he accepts it.
Jesus comes sauntering by. The background music is Gershwin’s “Walking the Dog”. John exclaims “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, and a lot of other stuff.
Same place, next day. The peregrinating Jesus passes by. John the Baptiser has an ear worm. He lets it loose with “Look, here is the Lamb of God”. Same words different day.
This time his two disciples having switched off the Gershwin listen to John. They not only listen, they hear. One of them is Andrew the Inquisitive. (Remember that he is the one whose inquisitive nature led him to spot a lad in a hungry crowd of 5,000, the lad who has five barley loaves and two fishes). Andrew the Inquisitive. He is not only inquisitive, he is also prudent. He will not be a Lone Ranger. So he calls to his brother “Hey Simon, get your legs over here and come with me”.
Andrew and Simon begin to stalk Jesus. Jesus, maybe even a wee bit annoyed, calls out “what in the blazes are you looking for”. Their answer, “where are you staying?” seems to be a bit anti-climatic. Did they think that Jesus was holding an open house that day?
Our former Rector Ted Copland made a suggestion for which I am grateful. “Where are you staying” means “where can we find you to listen to your teaching?” Jesus replies “Come and see”, which is another way of saying “follow me”.
Jesus will say “follow me”, or “come and see” to others, and so is launched the Jesus movement. It all but falls apart when he is crucified, but coincidental with his resurrection the Jesus Movement is revived. For good or ill that movement morphs into the Church, that world-wide body which has been hanging around for nearly two thousand years, and generally speaking has made a pig’s ear of following Jesus.
Since the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Church has focused its energy and purpose not on being a loving, forgiving, serving body in which we with joy and tears learn to follow Jesus, but on status, authority, numerical growth, money and power.
But the game is up. Much of Europe, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States are now post Christian societies. We have yet to understand this. We carry on as if it will be ecclesiastical business as usual. Meanwhile the popular and dominant culture has smirked, giggled or averted its eyes as the Church continues to parade in its expensive and fancy dress – but in fact is naked.
Fewer than 4% of the British people attend Church on a regular basis. The Church of England is facing extinction. It’s most recent plan to address the decline is to suggest that its future Bishops should have M.B.A’s, in order to be more effective leaders.
We might be tempted to believe that Bishops should be teachers of the faith, theologians, women and men of prayer, evangelists, leaders with dirty hands who have struggled with the poor in the fight against oppression (and the poor are oppressed in the U.K.).
What a naïve, impracticable and cute idea. You silly people, we need Bishops who are C.E.O’s in order to manage us out of, or into decline
In the Episcopal Church our attendance declined by 26% between 2005 and 2015. Congregations are folding or merging all over the land. We thought of ourselves as Neiman Marcus. We have become K-Mart.
Our average age – nationally – is 57 (this means that St. Boniface is above average).
The Diocese of South West Florida has 30,000 active baptized members - but the average total Sunday attendance is only 13,000. Burials are outstripping baptisms.
The trend in declining attendances didn’t start yesterday.
One of the congregations I served has now closed
Because of shrinking membership and attendance, another is about to enter an arranged marriage – a merger with a similarly declining congregation.
I was Rector of a parish between 1984 and 2000. Each year as I totaled the vital statistics I would see a reduction in attendances. Each year I would see fewer children in Church school.
Bit by bit, drip by drip the parish was declining. When it is bit by bit, drip by drip you hardly notice it. But sixteen years on, when I visited that same congregation last December - good Lord above - the shrinking of the congregation could not be missed. It’s a place with good people, and a wonderful Rector, but it is in numerical decline. It is in a County where there were fifteen congregations. Now there are eight.
There is cold comfort in noting that the Episcopal Church is not the only one in decline. There are similar patterns in the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Lutheran Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church. Even the much vaunted Southern Baptist Convention is losing members.
Where have all the people gone? For the most part they have not left in anger or despair. They have simply drifted away. Perhaps they have more options and choices for Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Perhaps they are just too tired to rouse themselves on Sundays. Perhaps they cannot be bothered.
Maybe they find no compelling reason to be in Church. When I was in Cambridge MA we had a fabulous cadre of youth. At one time ten of them were “preacher’s kids” and none of them fought against Church attendance. They loved it. Ten years on they are in their mid-twenties, careers in place and marriages in place. None of them now attend Church. Well they do, nothing would keep them away at Christmas and on Easter Day. They have become twicers.
I’ve talked with some of them. They have fond memories of Church. They are fascinated with Jesus and his teaching. But they have disdain for a Church which is obsessed with status, authority, numerical growth, money and power.
Why are people not joining us?
It’s very hard to enter a Church for the first time. It’s so scary that people rarely do so.
Just for fun, and because I am ornery I’ve snooped into other congregations in Sarasota in recent years.
I went to one of those pop-up and growing evangelical Churches which often meet in rented premises. I got a warm hand shake as I entered. As I found a seat I looked at the big screen on the platform. It bore the message “sit with your @ group this morning”. (@ group is what they call their small groups. Guess what that message said to me? It said “you are only welcome here if you are a member of an @ group”.
I went one Sunday to the biggest Mennonite Church in Sarasota. The front door welcome was o.k. I sat at the end of a long pew. The gentleman who sat next to me never once even looked at me.
It’s very hard to enter a Church for the first time.
People are most likely to attend Church for the first time when they are invited by a member. It’s the biblical principle of “Come and see”.
Remember that Andrew first found his brother Simon and invited him to “come and see”.
If St. Boniface is to grow it will be when we say “Come and see”.
But what will they see? Will they see people who want the Church to be the way it always was? Will they see people whose modus operandi at home, at work and in the Church is to do no more than survive and or to hang on to what they have? Will they see people who are gripped by fear and despair but who mask those fears on Sunday mornings, and whistle a happy tune.
Or will they encounter a people who are crazy about Jesus, finding in him their way, their truth and their life.
We are blessed to have a fine Priest in the person of Wayne Farrell. Wayne we like you, and we are learning to love you.
You are here to be a Priest, not to be a C.E.O. Don’t try to manage us into success until you have learned how to herd cats.
Make mistakes; get it wrong by all means. We will forgive you about almost everything except apathy about Jesus and his teaching.
Help us to “come and see” that Lord Jesus Christ whose teaching is so very difficult; whose presence delivers us from our darkest fears; whose death frees us from the power of sin; whose resurrection leads us into abundant life. Help us to be a people who know this to be true: “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved and free”, and “Together met, together bound we’ll go our different ways, and as God’s people in the world we’ll live and speak his praise”.
Or to put it another way we ask you Wayne, together with our new musician Dr. James Guyer.
**Give us Jesus, Give us Jesus.
You can take all this world, but give us Jesus.
** I sang this as part of my sermon today, hoping to plant an “ear worm” into the minds of those who heard me.
What follows is background material which I used when preparing to write the sermon.
I confess that we have grown cold. That we have lost sight of our True Love. And together we have forgotten the cross: the self-sacrificial love of the One who calls us to go and do likewise. Oh, American Church! I am you and you are me. And together we have grown judgmental, folding our hands and closing our doors. Have we forgotten that we were once the ones on the outside looking in? Have we forgotten that our salvation is a gift given to us, that we are but jolly beggars at the door of the Gift-Giver himself?
Maybe I’m the last one to see this dilemma. The millions who are fleeing institutional Christianity in America aren’t escaping bad doctrine, shoddy performance values or inconvenient calls to mission. They are escaping the institution itself.
It doesn’t have to be this way. God certainly doesn’t want it this way.
I think, for example, of the performance anxiety that infects most churches. We needn’t worry so much about pleasing constituents on Sunday. Worship isn’t a Broadway show; it’s a glimpse of God, not a celebration of style, excellence and self.
I think of our leadership conflicts. Pastors aren’t CEOs hired to maximize shareholder returns. They aren’t impresarios rewarded for putting on great shows. Pastors are flawed creatures called to help other flawed creatures bring their neediness to God.
Church should be a safe place — safe to be oneself, safe to make one’s confession, safe to love whoever one feels called to love, safe to imagine more, safe to fail. Instead, church often is a dangerous place, where people feel guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, required to obey rules.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York.
News report from the installation of Joseph Tobin as Aarchbishop (and Cardinal) in Newark, N.J.
To believe in Jesus “is not acceptance of a doctrine or a moral code, but of a person who lives now and is the source of life — and not just on Sunday morning!” Cardinal Tobin told an overflow crowd that included thousands of worshippers and hundreds of nuns and priests from Newark, Indianapolis and Tobin’s own Redemptorist order.
“The church senses a responsibility for the world, not simply as yet another institutional presence or a benevolent NGO, but as a movement of salt, light and leaven for the world’s transformation,” Tobin said. “For this reason, our kindness must be known to all.”
He said that joy must be the hallmark of the church today as it was for the earliest Christians who lived through much more difficult times.
“Rejoice,” Tobin concluded, “because we will grow in unity and humility and, in the process, discover joy and peace in our life together. Rejoice, because our kindness will be known to all: to the searching young and the forgotten elderly, to the stranger and the voiceless, to the powerful and the cynical.” (Cardinal Joseph Tobin)